I used to think that as the world evolved and humans began to look at the destruction we have caused one another over the centuries, we would begin to come into line with Martin Luther King’s famous saying “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I still believe that. But it doesn’t take a seasoned look at the world today, to see that that arc is a lot longer than I at first believed.
My newsfeed is filled with images and stories of depravity and soulless cruelty from across the world. A father and child dead in a river after trying to find a better life in the USA. Children in cages being told to drink from toilets in Texas. Ships full of migrants not being allowed to dock in European ports. Ebola ridden bodies being thrown into clinics in the DRC. “Send her back” being chanted at political rallies
The Problem of Dehumanization
And of course, these are just the stories that make the news. It seems injustice and cruelty towards our fellow humans is more or less endemic to our modern society. Furthermore, it has taken a way we never could have dreamed of just a few short years ago.
Why is it that we find it easier than ever to casually dehumanize people in today’s society? Maybe it’s because of social media, or political ideology or the breakdown of social discourse. Maybe it’s because we find it easier in a 24-hour news cycle age to tell one single story about a group of individuals and make them the collective other, all of whom are the same. Whatever it is, it is a road we have travelled before and it never leads to a good place.
The Danger of Othering
In his seminal work I and Thou, Martin Buber expresses the opinion that we are primarily sinful to the degree in which we treat other people as objects. And he is right. Othering people leads to the ability to treat them in a way that causes pain and suffering, without impinging on our sense of justice and equity. As soon as we do that we give ourselves the license to treat them at a level we would never wish to be treated ourselves. Hence, this can be in a way we might regard as trivial, such as shouting at the driver who just cut us off (is she racing to a loved one who has had an accident?), or being angry at the elderly gentleman who is taking his time talking to the cashier at the supermarket and holding us up (is he lonely and this is his only social interaction in a tough day?).
But it can also lead us down that terrible path that leads to atrocity and genocide. As someone who spends much of their working life in Rwanda and who lived through a genocide in Bosnia and Croatia, I am very familiar with what this looks like. It starts with those shouts of “send her back”, those discussions of why “they” are not as clean/intelligent/honest/good as us. And it leads through a series of ever worsening gates until we get to the final solution.
We Are all Made in the Image of God
The simple truth is that we are all human beings. There is no other, there is just us. All of us in this one world together. All of us with our own unique stories, experiences, networks of relationships and memories. If we could just see through the label and meet the individual. If we could hear their stories and learn about their lives, we would learn something about ourselves. For to treat anyone less than ourselves is to deny the image of God in them. An image that He placed in us as well. One He calls us to carry with love, grace and dignity.
Poet John Albert Holmes said, ‘It’s well to remember that the entire population of the universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others.’ May we remember that as we gaze on the faces on the TVs and the street corners. We are them and they are us.
May God preserve us all.
- In what ways have you viewed people as the other?
- What does it take to start viewing people differently?
Matthew 25: 37-45 demolishes “other” thinking. Here, Christ says, “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me…” To be honest, this is a commandment. Hence, it is important as a Christ follower to respond to it. You are joining with Jesus in the redemption of creation as all of us are made in the image of God. With this perspective, every action towards justice for the vulnerable is a part of bringing the Kingdom of God closer because there is no other, there is just us.